Toxicity of Plastic Debris to Marine Life

Hazardous substances may be emitted during all phases of the life cycle of a plastic product (Lithner et al. 2011; Galloway 2015). When the ultimate fate of a plastic product is the marine environment, plastic debris carries a cocktail of contaminants, including those that accumulate on the material from the ocean water. If these chemicals become bioavailable, they can penetrate cells and chemically interact with biologically important molecules, and may cause adverse effects including changes in behavior (Browne et al. 2013), liver toxicity (Rochman et al. 2013b) and endocrine disruption (Teuten et al. 2009; Rochman et al. 2014c). This section will discuss what is currently understood regarding the potential for chemicals associated with marine plastic debris to impact marine organisms.

Hazards Associated with Plastic Ingredients

Several of the ingredients associated with plastics are considered hazardous by regulatory agencies (Lithner et al. 2011; Rochman 2013; Browne et al. 2013; USEPA 2013; European Commision 2014). Polymerization reactions are rarely complete and unpolymerized residual monomers can migrate off the plastic (Lithner et al. 2011). Moreover, additive ingredients are not usually bound to the polymer matrix, and often account for the major leaching and emissions of chemical substances from plastic materials (Lithner et al. 2011; Engler et al. 2012). Release of hazardous substances, including phthalates, brominated flame retardants, bisphenol A, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, 4-nonylphenol and many volatile organic compounds, from plastic products has been shown (Crain et al. 2007; Lithner et al. 2012). As such, these chemicals may be bioavailable to marine life and thus there is potential for organisms to be impacted by the chemical ingredients associated with plastic debris.

For some plastics, the monomer that makes up the polymer itself is classified as hazardous. For example, polyurethane foam, PVC, polycarbonate and high-impact polystyrene, are composed of monomers that are considered carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction (Lithner et al. 2011). Other monomers that have been described as the most environmentally hazardous are m-phenylenediamine, p-phenylenediamine, 1,4-dichlorobenzene and the phthalate plasticizer BBP (used as a monomer in some PVC), all of which have been found to be acutely toxic to aquatic life (Lithner et al. 2011).

Several plastics are composed of monomers considered to be non-hazardous (e.g. polyethylene and polypropylene), but contain harmful additives. Some of the most hazardous additives include brominated flame retardants, polyfluoronated compounds, triclosan, phthalate plasticizers and lead heat stabilizers (Halden et al. 2010; Lithner et al. 2011). Phthalates, for example, have been shown to target nuclear hormone receptor signaling pathways (GrĂ¼n and Blumberg 2007) and cause endocrine disrupting effects in fish (Kim et al. 2002). Adverse effects related to the brominated flame-retardants include neurobehavioral development disorders, thyroid hormone alterations, teratogenicity and reduction in spawning success (Darnerud 2003; de Wit 2002). Other additives have hazardous degradation products. For example, nonylphenol is a degradation product of nonylphenol ethoxylates, a surfactant, and can cause endocrine disruption in fish (Gray and Metcalfe 1997; Seki et al. 2003; Kawahata et al. 2004).

When trying to understand how plastic debris may impact ocean organisms, it is critical to measure effects at environmentally relevant concentrations and under environmentally relevant exposure conditions (Rochman and Boxall 2014). While some evidence of toxicity for these substances occurs at levels greater than those found in the environment, for several chemical ingredients (e.g. phthalates and bisphenol A) adverse effects have been demonstrated at environmentally relevant concentrations (Crain et al. 2007; Oehlmann et al. 2009). Moreover, organisms are rarely exposed to one chemical in isolation, and the interaction of several chemicals may induce synergistic effects. As such, when considering the impacts to organisms from plastic debris one must consider the complex mixture of chemicals associated with this material in the marine environment.

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